A male ultra runner in the mountains
Image provided by Ashley Varley

Ashley Varley was encouraged by work colleagues back in 1999 to join a small team who were running a local half marathon for charity. He’d never run before, but was young, and was sure that with a little practice, he could do it. Half a mile into his first training run, he’d stopped twice, finding it incredibly tough, but after 3 months of hard training he made it to the end of the 13.1 miles.

Fast forward to 2016, he was 43, and had let his training slip. He wondered ‘What if? What if he really tried?’

What If? A running journey from failure to first place is a book about Ash’s incredible running story, and Michelle Mortimer reviews it for UKRunChat.

Book cover shows a montage of various city landmarks with mountains behind, and colourful running figures on a track in the foreground. Book title is What If? A running journey from failure to first place. Ashley Varley


At first glance, the book seems to be a collection of race reviews – most of the chapters focus on a different race – BUT it soon became apparent that this is an inspiring tale of a man in his forties who decides to really push the boundaries and find of what he’s capable of.

The book covers a seven-year journey filled with highs, lows, successes, and failures as Ash faces a decision following a disappointing performance London Marathon in 2016. He wonders, “What if? What if he really put his heart and soul into training, what might he achieve?”

The book is a collection of Ash’s thoughts as he shares his experiences of training. It’s a very personal story, with some very humbling – as well as humorous – moments.


The book is structured chronologically, with chapters focusing on the main races in Ash’s path to becoming the runner he knows he can be, including the London and Brighton marathons, the Snowdon 24 hour race, the Centurion series of 50 and 100 mile races and many more. In them he shares the ups and downs of training, in a very human way. We get to know not only Ash, but his wife and running friends who support him throughout his journey, and play a huge part in crewing and pacing his races.

It’s a short, but engaging, well-paced (pardon the pun!), read. I loved the insight into different marathons and ultra races. It’s really interesting reading about the UTMB CCC and the Centurion 100 mile races, being very unlikely to complete these myself. Ash comes across as very humble, and very self-deprecating, but he is clearly a very talented runner, and his passion for running and racing really comes across in his book. I particularly enjoyed those moments where he talks about the people he encounters perhaps even only for a few seconds during a race who inspired him to dig deeper to finish his race, the reader gets a real sense of the community Ash is a part of, and this becomes more apparent as he joins the ultra community.

I also enjoyed his insights into training for – and pacing – his marathons.


I really enjoyed this book. It completely surpassed my expectations, and I was really rooting for Ash to succeed by the end, having felt I was on a journey with him. The ending of the book gave me a warm fuzzy feeling and reminded me of everything I love about running. Ash’s book has actually inspired me to change up my own training: I’m wondering what I’m capable of myself.

This book has the best of both worlds – fast road racing for the road runners out there, with plenty of tips to pick up on, as well as extremely long jaunts out in the countryside.

Thank you Ash for sharing such a warm, honest and heartfelt true story with us.

You can hear Ash’s interview on the UKRunChat podcast very soon